STARRING: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Cara Buono, Maya Hawke, Brett Gelman, Paul Reiser, Cary Elwes, Jake Busey, Priah Ferguson, Francesca Reale, Andrey Ivchenko and Alex Utgoff
It’s 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana, and summer’s heating up. School’s out, there’s a brand new mall in town, and the Hawkins crew are on the cusp of adulthood. Romance blossoms and complicates the group’s dynamic, and they’ll have to figure out how to grow up without growing apart. Meanwhile, danger looms. When the town’s threatened by enemies old and new, Eleven and her friends are reminded that evil never ends; it evolves. Now they’ll have to band together to survive, and remember that friendship is always stronger than fear.
After closing the gate underneath Hawkins and preventing the Mind Flayer from crossing over into their dimension, we’re taken a year later into the Summer of 85. The Starcourt mall has opened in the small town, relationships between Mike/El and Lucas/Max are blossoming, even Dustin returns from his science camp to tell his friends that he has a girlfriend. As the group dynamic becomes complicated on whether it is best to spend time together or apart, a new threat in Russian intelligence comes to Hawkins and the threat from the Upside Down emergences, leading to the group to question just how can there be a threat when El closed the gate?
It’s no secret that I absolutely loved the first season of Stranger Things, and while the second season was referred to as a setback for some, I actually enjoyed that too. The third season took its time to be released (it’s been over a year and a half gap between season 2 and season 3) and once you sit down to binge it you’ll see why. The Starcourt Mall becomes the main focus of season 3, which they developed from scratch at an empty wing of a mall in Georgia, creating storefronts for stores that no longer exist to using old logos for ones that are still going. Not only can you feel the attention to detail and money pumped into the production design of the Starcourt Mall, you will also notice the money put into making the special effects the best yet in the series. The main monster in terms of effects is terrific to see compared to the ambition of it and when compared to the previous main monsters of the previous seasons (Demogorgon and Mind Flayer). The series has reached maturity in terms of how it handles the horror aspect here as we here gore mode with exploding rats and some body horror moments that shows the series aiming to stretch out the limits of its ‘suitable enough for kids’ rating amongst families fixated on Stranger Things. The score once again from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein works really well here, particularly in the final episodes to capture the tension and emotion that’s unfolding onscreen. The direction and editing is also very solid as well, particularly in the episodes ‘The Sauna Test’ and ‘The Bite’, which are some of the best episodes of the season.
While the series previously focused on the young kids as a whole, here we see how life manages to crack away and separate them from spending every moment together, from relationships to just not as being keenly interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons like they used to. The season allow has the older youngsters having to deal with other issues, such as discrimination in the workplace (Nancy) and realising that being the popular hotshot in High School means nothing in the real world (Steve). The ‘Scoop troop’ storyline, focusing on Dustin, Steve, Robin and Erica, was absolutely my favourite part of the season. We caught a glimpse into the friendship of Steve and Dustin in the second season and here their friendship is absolutely infectious and that’s when the humour worked the most for me with their interactions with each other. Joe Keery’s Steve has gone on one of the best character progressions on the show and for me personally, he was my second favourite performance of this season. The first, surprisingly, was Dacre Montgomery as Billy. Like Keery, he was introduced to us as a bully, though Billy was more brutal in comparison and here they switch his character up, giving us some more depth and giving Montgomery more meaty material to worth with and he was absolutely the standout performer for me this season. The rest of the young cast are as good as expected, Millie Bobby Brown keeps showcasing how she’s one of the best young talents around, Priah Ferguson is another one that gets a lot more screentime compared to her appearance in season 2 and provides a few laughs, and even Brett Gelman returns as Murray Bauman and I enjoyed his role this season. Maya Hawke is one of the newcomers this season as Robin, who works with Steve at Scoops Ahoy, and I I thought her chemistry with Keery and Matarazzo was great.
For all the good the season does, the attempts at comedy at times is a bit much, particularly focusing on the relationship/arc of Joyce and Hopper. It’s no secret that Jim Hopper is one of my favourite characters from a series this decade, but this season that seem to dumb him down a bit too much and he feels like he’s boiling with rage underneath in every single scene. Winona Ryder and David Harbour were the anchors of the first season and for a portion of the second and here there storyline is the least interesting out of the groups and their objectives leading down to come together at the same final destination. I also felt that Nancy and Jonathan also got less screentime this season compared to the previous two. Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers has had a rough go of it on the series, to say the least, and here his character primarily exists to tell the group that the Mind Flayer is here, there and also fume that the group collective is more fragile than ever. The Russian sub-plot will be a make or break scenario for some people. It adds to the adventure and brings a certain amount of 80’s cheese that people will find it too ridiculous for the series or just roll with it. As for the Russian assassin, they really did go out of their way to get a Arnold Schwarzenegger-like presence. I was excited to hear that Cary Elwes would be starring in the third season, another 80’s figure of nostalgia getting into the fold like Sean Astin in season 2, but his corrupt Mayor of Hawkins character is so one-note that he’s wasted here. Another thing that I felt while watching the season was one that I didn’t want to but felt it with each passing episode…predictable and familiar. It’s following the same beats as previous seasons and there’s plenty of occasions where a character is in trouble/danger and there’s a last second save. One or twice, sure, but keep hitting that same cue long enough you’ll not get the reaction required when you finally decide to pull the trigger.
While it takes a while to gather momentum, Stranger Things 3 has a riveting main plot with a satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, the season does come with a heavy hand of comedy that works well when done right but when it doesn’t land, it falls hard. There’s some standout performances from Millie Bobby Brown, Joe Keery and Dacre Montgomery, with great group interactions, whilst the plot for Winona Ryder and David Harbour was the least effective for me unfortunately. Still a solid season but I’d probably put it down as the weakest season so far. 7/10